Colin Stetson is no stranger to soundtrack work. In addition to working extensively as a sideman for artists as diverse as Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, and Timber Timbre, his experimental/free jazz solo work has been dotted with plenty of film and television scores. But it was his score of Ari Aster’s acclaimed horror film Hereditary in 2018 that seemed to seal his reputation as a composer and musician whose unique approach to atmospheric tension can match the tension onscreen.
So when Stetson was tapped to score Color Out of Space, the supernatural horror film starring Nicolas Cage and directed by Richard Stanley, it didn’t seem like a huge leap. And it’s not. There are certainly parallels between this film (based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story) and Hereditary. Stetson’s unique approach to reed instruments – pushing boundaries through circular breathing and embouchure and leading jazz, noise, and ambient genres into dark, moody places – seems right at home here. If anything, the over-the-top feel of Color Out of Space allows Stetson to unleash even more madness than before. While comparisons have been made between Hereditary and The Exorcist, Color Out of Space is more in line with the garish freak-outs of Ken Russell’s Altered States . That score, incidentally, was composed by famed classical composer John Corigliano, who received an Academy Award nomination. Stetson is up to the task.
While the primary instruments of the Michigan-born, Montreal-based Stetson are bass and alto saxophone, he also plays a variety of reed and brass instruments on Color Out of Space, as well as Tibetan bowl percussion and Fender Rhodes. Joining him are Matt Combs on violin, viola, cello and contrabass, and Toby Summerfield, who plays electric guitar on three songs. On the opening track, “West of Arkham”, Stetson takes full advantage of the arsenal of instruments at his disposal, introducing a low-end drone, atmospheric tinkering, sweeping orchestral cues, and random creaking sounds like a ghost treading the floorboards.
But it isn’t all atmospheric effects and atonal droning. In fact, “The Gardners”, with its deep melodic power, takes on many of the traits of a typical film score, although it is equal parts melancholic and aloof. Tracks like “Dinner’s Ready” and “Stranded” begin in somewhat traditional ways, but like many of the other songs, the tension ratchets up to create a feeling of claustrophobia, almost unbearable chaos. The noise and textures throughout the score often evoke a sense of envelopment. It’s a strange kind of warmth, spiked – at times, bludgeoned – with danger.
The atmosphere that Stetson has crafted works well to accompany Stanley’s garish, alien horror. But there are also traces of humanity buried underneath, as evidenced by tracks like “Taken”, as heartbeat-like pulses emerge about halfway through the song. On “It Burns”, a sonic bed that sounds like synthesizer programming can be heard bubbling up to the surface. While waves of unrelenting apocalyptic noise tend to dominate Color Out of Space, the presence of other random elements gives the score a welcome dose of eclecticism.
Fans of the Hereditary score will likely look for comparisons here, and to be honest, Hereditary tends to be more layered, varied, and adventurous. That doesn’t mean that Color Out of Space is a dud – far from it. But it seems to serve more of a singular purpose, which is to hammer home the ostentatious nature of the film it accompanies. I haven’t seen the film beyond the trailer. Still, if that relatively small slice is any indication, Colin Stetson has created a loud, unique, often terrifying collection of music for a film that can best be described the same way.